Northern Ireland prosecutes woman for abortion, but what is its legal position?


By Jamie McKay

At the end of March, Donald Trump entered the headlines for yet another one of his now famed demagogic comments. Interviewed by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews he stated that he believed that women who choose to have an abortion should face “some form of punishment”. Though he later retracted on these statements after coming under heavy criticism from centrist Republicans, Democrats and pro-choice activists, his usual bombastic rhetoric caught attention from media outlets across the world, especially in Great Britain. But, as British media outlets across the spectrum focused on the latest controversy initiated by the Republican front runner, less attention was granted to recent events in the abortion debate within UK borders.

Though legal abortions were established across England, Wales and Scotland under the 1967 Abortion Act it remains an offense in the fourth member of the United Kingdom.

In Northern Ireland, on the 4th of April this year, a 21-year-old woman was found guilty of undertaking an unlawful abortion and handed a three-month sentence, suspended for two years. She experienced an unwanted pregnancy at the age of 19, though the then teenager tried to save up the money needed to travel to England she soon had to resort to far more desperate measures. Ordering an assortment of abortion pills online she induced a miscarriage at home. However, her flatmates found blood stained items and foetal remains in a bin and alerted the police.

Using drugs with the intention of inducing a miscarriage would still be a criminal offense in the rest of the UK but an abortion would still be legal as long as it takes place before the current 24-week limit. Though the 1967 Act concerning abortion was never extended across the Irish Sea, abortion is legal under particular circumstances. If the life of the mother is considered to be under threat, this applies across both Northern Ireland and the Republic to the south.

Over the last two years Northern Irish authorities have recorded sixteen terminations of pregnancy among the country’s 1.8 million population. Though, as previously mentioned, many travel across to one of the other three nations of the United Kingdom. In 2014 the UK-based charity, the Family Planning Association, estimates that in 837 abortions were performed in England with smaller numbers of Northern Irish residents choosing to travel to Wales or Scotland. Though the less restrictive laws in Great Britain have served as a benefit to those Irish women seeking an abortion, many lack the financial reserves necessary buy the tickets needed to cross the Irish Sea, or find themselves in a situation where they are unable to travel. Just four years ago the Republic of Ireland found itself flooded by controversy as Savita Halappanavar died after complications of septic miscarriage seventeen weeks into her pregnancy.

The last Labour government faced calls to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, but the then Leader of the Commons Harriet Harman blocked the move claiming it might be shot down in the House of Lords. Though proponents for the extension of the Act speculated that the then government may have negotiated a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party in order to secure their support for plans to detain terror suspects without charge for 42 days.

Northern Ireland is recognised as the most religious region of the UK with 82 per cent of the population describing themselves as Christian, compared with 57 per cent of Welsh citizens. Though with polls in Northern Ireland showing a majority in favour of the extension of the Abortion Act it remains to be seen how long the Northern Irish government can restrain the access to abortion available to the rest of the United Kingdom.

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